TV Review: ABC’s ‘Secret Millionaire’ Highlights Great People While Manipulating Viewers

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CHICAGO – What has happened to Sunday nights? Perhaps the most bizarre modern trend in television is the desire for a good cry at the end of the weekend. People watch hard-working men and women finally get their due on “Undercover Boss” or shed a tear at the reshaped lives of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” The latest entry in this manipulative sub-genre is ABC’s “Secret Millionaire,” a program that certainly highlights deserving people but does so in a way that doesn’t quite work. TV Rating: 2.5/5.0
TV Rating: 2.5/5.0

The concept of “Secret Millionaire” is not unlike “Undercover Boss” in that it’s basically a charity program built around subterfuge. (Although, to be fair, the show is not only based on an older UK program but actually aired on FOX in December of 2008 before jumping networks a few years later.) Instead of CEOs, the show features a millionaire, and instead of going into the lower levels of a corporate structure, they’re dipping below the poverty line to learn lessons about giving back and find worthy places to which to donate. The millionaire tells people at soup kitchens and other volunteer organizations that he or she is working on a documentary about giving back and is actually forced to live with very little for a week.

Secret Millionaire
Secret Millionaire
Photo credit: ABC

And here’s where the show gets weird. Why force the millionaire to live on a limited budget and in a housing project? If the subject needed to learn a lesson than it makes a bit of sense, but the “star” of the first episode is an inspirational author/speaker who grew up below the poverty line herself. She advises people on how to get out of their tough situation. Why does she need to survive on $40 a week? It’s a gimmick.

Secret Millionaire
Secret Millionaire
Photo credit: ABC

And too much of “Secret Millionaire” feels like a gimmick. I’m all for giving back and very few of us do it as much as we could or should but should we turn the plight of the poor into Sunday night entertainment? We all should volunteer and give back but that doesn’t make the subject a good one for an ABC program. Can’t we find a way to learn about The Love Kitchen, an inspiring soup kitchen in Knoxville, that doesn’t feel manipulative?

I suppose one would argue that the “concept” of “Secret Millionaire” is the hook and that the moral message of the piece should be the focus. Everyone you meet on the premiere of “Secret Millionaire” seems like a good person and the show teaches an important lesson. I just wish it didn’t do so in a way that made me feel like I was being emotionally manipulated. When the child with Leukemia popped up in the premiere, it was just too much. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like when the plight of children is used to produce ratings to make money. It’s just a little dirty.

It’s also worth noting that the fact is that we don’t know what’s real and what’s not on reality TV and some parts of “Secret Millionaire” feel scripted. If not totally written, at least produced in which people are advised to talk about certain things. There were even scenes that I would swear to you felt like they weren’t the first take. They just don’t all seem natural. There’s a painting scene in the premiere that sounds like something out of a movie. People don’t talk like this naturally. At least not on the first take or without a little prodding about what to mention.

Ultimately, the entire concept is a bit too much of a script. I want people to learn about The Love Kitchen and, as a society, we definitely need to value the people highlighted on this show more than we do, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that “Secret Millionaire” was closer to “reality TV” than actual “reality.” And that’s a crucial difference.

“Secret Millionaire” debuts on ABC on Sunday, March 6th, 2011 at 7pm. content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

Danny's picture

Hey Brian, Whilst I

Hey Brian,

Whilst I understand the issues you have with the show appearing ‘scripted’, I think a certain amount of creative editing (including the odd re-take) is necessary to make TV shows of this ilk as entertaining as possible to the public. I’ve not seen the first episode yet but I’m very familiar with the format over here in the UK and I do hope the new series is not ruined by over-editing or over-production.

It would be awesome if a television program could just concentrate on giving exposure to worthwhile charities, causes, people and organisations that are making a positive to the lives of others, but ultimately all networks are in a constant battle for the ratings and it is the ‘gimmicks’ that push the viewing figures up and get folk watching.

On the whole, I think Secret Millionaire gives an opportunity for the everyday struggles of people below the poverty line to be understood by the wider public as well as rewarding those people and organisation that deserve it. To me, this can only be a good thing.

Of course the ABC network are getting adequately compensated for their part via advertising revenue, as are the featured millionaires in terms of personal exposure for themselves and their businesses so, to coin an oft-used phrase: Everyone’s a Winner.

Except perhaps, as you say, the viewer - but if the success of the UK-version of the show is anything to go by, it is a format that works and it should be a big hit.

Sheila's picture

secret millionaire.

I watched this show tonight and loved it. I think it is done just right. But of course I have a reason for this I am from knoxville tn and from an area just a few blocks from western heights where the love kitchen is located. My family was homeless about 90% of the time when I was growing up. So I know how much help these people need and how much it means to the whole city of Knoxville for someone to do this. Please pray for Helen and Ellen, since this show aired they have both been very ill and in the University of Tennessee Hospital.

Anonymous's picture

I loved the idea of a show

I loved the idea of a show like this but was seriously disgusted. And, there was nothing “secret” about it. As other posters pointed out - this was blatantly about self-publication and self-aggrandizement. People’s real lives - from their pain to selflessness - were used for someone else’s selfish gain. If you truly want to help others, try doing it anonymously. The millionaire could go by an alias and when they dole out checks they don’t have to be present to get all the accolades.

Sheila's picture

No way

I just don’t think this was all about self publicity. I think the people on this show are out to help these charities. Some people on here just don’t have any faith in their fellow human beings to do the right thing.

wally simpson's picture

I couldn’t agree more with

I couldn’t agree more with the writer and the other commenters. With regards to the actual millionaires, the cost of this type of “free” publicity/advertising is as they say “priceless.” And, I cannot help wondering what the tax deduction is.
Is this a tax deduction with super benefits? No doubt it is.
Wondering as well how the amounts are determined. It seems odd and sad to me that the charity which seemed to impact the most lives and in most need was given the least. Also, did she need to get “all dolled up” at the end when she was writing the checks? I think not. Perhaps, this is what people watching want to see. Personally, I hope the Love Kitchen will be benefit from all the exposure. Those ladies are wonderful!

Is this a show for the times? With the daily dissolution of the middle class, perhaps this how we will be enter-tainted.
Oops, I made a typo….. but perhaps, it was a just Freudian slip.
The last “adventure” millionaire show (though not a reality show) was downright offensive and appalling. So, comparatively speaking this one is tame.
Hoping the spotlight will get people talking, thinking and most importantly doing something to help their fellow human beings.

Anonymous's picture

Such a Gimmick

This show would be a whole lot better if they actually focused a bit more on the ‘Millionaire’ being forced to live in such poverty and maybe even getting a minimum wage job and see how difficult it is to survive…. for longer than a measly 6 days. How do we know that she actually lived in that tiny, bug infested apartment the entire 6 days??? We see her in sweats with no makeup, never really experiencing life being that poor (whether it’s the first or second time being ‘poor’ doesn’t matter, it’s been long enough since they’ve had to live like that), and all of a sudden we’re made to believe she’s actually slumming it?? The whole point of her living in such a run down place and getting the equivalent of welfare money is because it’s supposed to give them a better understanding of the people whom they are helping’s poor lifestyle, and therefore have more compassion for them when giving. Also, the guy from the music school who just happened to be walking up the sidewalk at the same time as the Millionaire, TOTALLY set up!! I bet the producers and/or the Millionaires already know the places they’re going to and where they’ll be giving their money before they even go there. This show just feels like an hour long ad for charities, and watching rich people give money for tax write offs. The UK show was MUCH better, as was their Slumdog Secret Millionaire version.

Anonymous's picture

hard to watch

With the events going on in Wisconsin, it was irritating to watch this show. I’d like to know more about the millionaires that will be featured. Did they approve of the tax cut to the rich? How much did they pay in taxes last year? How much did their corporations pay in taxes? Are they regularly supporting organizations that help the poor—without the acclaim they get from doing this show? Do they think budget cuts are shared equally by the all economic classes? Have they or their children served in the military in Iraq or Afghanistan? Are the producers of this program Republican or Democratic?

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